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from Jeff KRUYS


Altiplano Chileno 209 km Putre to Chivatambo 52 km Chivatambo to Salar de Surire 62 km Salar de Surire to Chinchillani 48 km Chinchillani to Pisiga (Bolivia) 47 km

Curahuara to Lago Chungara 80 km

More boring riding. Volcán Sajama, a nice-looking volcano and Bolivia's highest peak, got closer and closer, and that was about the only thing to look at. The road climbed slowly to about 4200m, skirting around the national park that surrounds the volcano, then dipped to a bit over 4000m at another abandoned village, Lagunas, before slowly climbing to the border town of Tambo Quemado. I had high hopes for this place, but it was another dusty place with unhealthy-looking hole-in-the-wall restaurants. I bought water and Coke and went right to the border post, weaving my way through a maze of parked transport trucks. Got my passport exit-stamped with no questions asked. Then followed 7km of rather steep climbing up to the actual border, at the top of the 4650m pass.

Approaching the top of the pass, I started to feel the cold westerly wind blasting over from Chile. Going downhill, I could hardly roll into this wind without pedalling, and partway down had to put on some extra clothes. About 8km into the country was the border post, at the edge of Lago Chungará, in quite a nice setting at the foot of two more huge volcanos. This border post was a bit different than usual because, as I had been warned many times, they search all your stuff and confiscate any produce or dairy products you might be carrying. I got my entry stamp easily enough, but they fruit inspection guy wasn't sure what to do with my bike. They had a big x-ray machine like you'd see at an airport, but clearly my bike wouldn't fit on it, and at 4pm, the guy didn't really want to have to physically search my stuff. There was a big truck backlog and lots of more important work to do. I told him in Spanish that I knew the rules and I didn't bring any fresh food, and that was enough for him.

The wind was still screaming across the lake, but as the road turned north, the wind was then somewhat at my back. There was a national park refugio where they have a few beds and you can camp, but even to camp here costs more than my hotel in La Paz did. I continued around the lake and found a good hidden (although sandy and rocky and exposed to the wind) spot overlooking the lake. The temperature seemed to dip below freezing as soon as the sun went down, but the wind died down too.

Lago Chungar to Putre 50 km

Today was only 50km on a paved road, but it was tough. The westerly wind picked up right at 9am when I set off (after the whole oatmeal routine). First the road climbed out of the lake basin up to almost as high as the pass at the border (about 4650m). Lots of up and down after this, past the turnoff for Parinacota which looked from a distance like another abandoned village, past Chucuya with its three or four closed restaurants, and up and over another pass. All this time the pavement was a horrible mess of patchwork repairs with no shoulder and the edges of the lanes eroding, so that there was barely enough width for two trucks to pass each other. About 25km in, the junction appeared for the road through the national parks and down to Colchane. This is the road I planned to take, but not before a visit to the only nearby significant town, Putre.

Putre was 25km further along the highway, and unfortunately 1000m lower than my junction, but I needed to get there for some groceries and for some Chilean currency, which I'd forgotten to try to obtain in Tambo Quemado. I arrived at 2:05pm, about 5 minutes after the town's only bank had shut down for the weekend. There was no ATM. I asked around town for someone who could change my bolivianos or dollars into pesos, and was directed to a hotel. There was a small sign that said "we buy dollars and bolivianos", but the señor said the girl who does that just left for Bolivia for the weekend. From here I was directed to one place after another, but nobody wanted my dollars nor especially any part of my bolivianos. I returned to the first hotel and asked if I could stay here for the weekend and not pay until Monday when the bank opened or the girl returned, and he said sure. So I figured I was stuck here for the weekend.

The town was extremely quiet with really nothing to do except think of what I could do to get some pesos. There was a bus twice a day from here to Arica, but they wouldn't let me buy a ticket with dollars. I couldn't buy any food either, but I had a bit left in my bags to cook for dinner in my room.

Putre to Arica by bus

Saturday morning arrived, and I made some oatmeal. I only had one more idea for getting some Chilean pesos, and that was to ask the hotel owner nicely if he could lend me the cost of a bus ticket to Arica, and add it to my "tab". But he wasn't around today or Sunday. I managed to convince the girl working the attached restaurant to feed me lunch and add that to my hotel bill, but her chilly attitude made me feel like I was mooching for some reason, and I figured asking her for some cash would be pushing it.

I tried the grocery store where they sell bus tickets, and a different person was working there, but she wouldn't take dollars either. I would have given up on this and just waited for Monday and enjoyed myself here in this quiet town, with apparently nice hikes available all around it, but I didn't have money to buy food to take with me on these hikes. I spotted another grocery store that I hadn't seen earlier, and asked if I could buy stuff here with dollars. He said no, but try that touristy craft store over there. I did, and surprise, he was willing to change US$20 for me. Of course, the Saturday 2pm bus had left by this time. There was another at 7pm, but it would arrive in Arica around 10pm or later on a Saturday night, probably not a great idea.

So, what to do, what to do. No matter what, if I went to Arica, I'd have to stay there overnight (the only direct bus back to Putre leaves Arica each morning at 7am), thus paying for the room in Arica and for the room for my bike back in Putre. I would have maybe packed up the bike and stuff and asked the hotel people if I could store it in a storage room while I went to Arica, but I had no way to pay my bill up to this point and thought it might seem suspicious to leave town without paying, even though they'd have my bike. There were some groceries available in Putre, just not the stuff I wanted, and I was facing a week's riding ahead without any places to buy more food. I could wait here until Monday and change my dollars, but then I'd have no more US dollars, while if I went to Arica I could get pesos directly from the ATM, and keep my dollars for a future emergency. Sunday 2pm came around, and I finally decided to go to Arica. I locked my bike and stuff in my room in Putre, took a few things along, and hopped on the bus (for 2,500 pesos, about US$5.50).

The highway was quite a thing to see. It's about 125km between Putre and Arica, with a 3,500m elevation difference. But the first, oh, 35km were frustrating (for cyclists especially) up-and-down, and not small ups and downs either. The landscape was almost completely and very strikingly barren, and the last 75km or more were on terrible-looking pavement with no shoulders and tons of truck traffic. This was one time I was on a bus and not really wishing I was out there on a bike instead. The last 50km or more follow a flat valley of a creek that actually has water running in it, so there's farms and greenery surrounding it, looking very similar to my approach to Pisco in Peru, but without all the earthquake damage. Actually some of the rural housing looked as poor as the worst I'd seen in Peru, but closer to the city there were houses made of real wood, with pickup trucks in the driveway, looking more like the affluence of North America than anywhere I'd been since North America.

The bus dropped me off in Arica about a mile from the center of town, which I walked, once I oriented myself. This orientation involved flagging down a taxi with a passenger already in it, getting in, and discovering that he was actually going away from downtown, not towards it. Anyway, downtown, I got my pesos from an ATM, but every business was closed, including the huge supermarket, and all the Chifa restaurants, which was a big disappointment. Should I stay down here an extra day just to get some fancy groceries and Chinese food? Sure, what the hell. I paid for two nights at Residencial Liz, run by a cute old grandmother, so I knew the place would be quiet. Monday, I'll go to the beach! Oh hey, to any mothers reading this, especially mine, happy Mothers' Day!

Monday I spent in Arica, my first Chilean "big city", home to about 150,000 folks. Things are a LOT different than anywhere else I've been so far in South America, in terms of urban infrastructure anyway. They actually have good sidewalks, like with smooth ramps at the corners for wheelchairs, and everything. And pedestrians actually have rights here. And cars don't honk nearly as much, actually almost not at all. Compared to Peru especially, it's like paradise to be a pedestrian in this city. There are a lot more people here who appear to be of European descent, so I don't look so much like a freak here, although the homeless folks seem to be able to tell that I'm a "rich" tourist. That's the other thing, homelessness. With the affluence here, it creates economic classes with greater disparities than is apparent in Peru, where pretty much everyone is poor. And Arica being a border city, it's a bit seedy especially after dark.

Oh, there's a good bike shop where I picked up some new spare 700C-size tubes (called cámaras in Chile, not neumáticos like in Peru and Bolivia), with Presta valves even, although they're for skinny racing bikes but that's close enough for me. Also new gloves (size Large, unbelievable!) and patches. See http://www.bicicletaswilson.cl. Also, a paint store had a big 1-liter bottle of bencina blanca (fuel for my stove), for about US$3.

I tried the restaurants, which are relatively expensive. It's tough to get a decent meal for under US$4 or $5, and that doesn't fill up a cyclist. Chileans seem to love steaks and hot dogs and various sandwiches loaded with meat and cheese. The restaurants that serve these things have counters in a big square U shape, so the people eating are all facing each other. I didn't want to eat these big sloppy things with everyone staring at me. There are cheap-ish sidewalk restaurants with set-menu lunches and dinners too, although there are usually four or five options for each course. That was one good thing about set-menu meals in Peru, there's just one option so I didn't have to say anything. In one place here, my waitress talked so fast, I just nodded to the first option she mentioned each time. I thought I was getting a hamburger, but I got ceviche, then seafood soup, and a breaded chicken cutlet with mashed potatoes. She said it was 2500 pesos, but she gave me 1400 change for my 3000. It was pretty confusing overall.

Anyway the supermarket's good, and I picked up an obscene number of large chocolate bars for the road ahead through the northern national parks.

Tuesday I took the 7am bus back to Putre, getting some neat pictures of the lifeless landscape along the way. Arrived at 10am and decided to spend one more night and get started early the next morning.

Putre to Chivatambo 52 km

The road heading north out of Putre was, obviously, more difficult to climb out on than it was heading downhill when I arrived. I didn't realize how much harder it would be though. It was something like 500m climbing over 7km, on mostly loose gravel, so there was quite a bit of get-off-and-push. Having that increasingly icy wind at my back though, it was a bit more comfortable. Same for the remaining 500m uphill on the main paved highway. I skipped a couple of jeep-tour stops on the way up, one at the guardaparque (park ranger station) where there was a long interpretive trail and lots of boulder-strewn vizcacha habitat.

I reached my turnoff around lunchtime, and I hunkered down in the wind shelter of a sand dune to eat lunch before striking out on this unpaved route south through Lauca national park. The turnoff was up at around 4,500m elevation, and the road started by gradually climbing to about 4,580m before a long and not terribly exciting sequence of small ups and downs. The road was in pretty good shape, and is apparently well-used by trucks hauling salt off the Salar de Surire south of here, down to the QuiBorax plant (whatever that is) down near Arica. However, I didn't see a single truck the rest of the day, just two private small vehicles heading the opposite way around 5pm.

Well, there were vicuñas of course, and a new animal, an ostrich-like bird known as a ñandú. I saw four of these from a great distance, each running like the wind away from me. That was exciting and I hoped I'd get to see more later. Anyway, just beyond a turnoff for a ghost village by the name of Chivatambo, there was a junction with a narrow road heading north to the Lago Chungará border post, and I followed this road for a kilometer or so and set up the tent in a hidden gully. That cold wind from the west got much colder after sundown, and made it really uncomfortable to sit cooking outside the tent. This wind, clearly a constant factor in this area, already had me thinking longingly of returning to relatively wind-free Bolivia. Nice sunset tonight though.

Chivatambo to Salar de Surire 62 km

It was a very cold morning, definitely below freezing, and it took quite an effort to get out of the tent and get some oatmeal cooking. I definitely could not leave my sleeping bag until after the morning sun had hit the tent, which wasn't until 7:45am due to the stupid mountains to my east. (Official sunrise time is around 7am these days in this area.) After the whole cooking/eating/cleaning/packing routine, I was finally rolling by 10am. The landscape didn't get too much more exciting south of here, and the road was getting a bit sandier and more challenging. I did get a nice view of Volcán Guallatire, with its little plume of smoke rising from one of the lesser peaks. I passed through a village of the same name, where there's another guardaparque office, also closed for the winter season. There was an army outpost here with three or four guys sitting around. I asked if I could fill my water bottles and they happily obliged. There are creeks flowing around here, but I'm never entirely sure that the water is safe in this volcanic area. Some lakes are known to contain arsenic, and other less poisonous minerals can be present in stomach-rupturing levels, and why take chances out in a place like this.

The road continued through rolling hills, down into shallow valleys and up and out, and so on, always in the 4,200m to 4,400m elevation range. The screaming wind was usually at my back and from the right, not causing me big problems but I still wished it would go away. Near the end of the day I saw two touring cyclists approaching from the south. It was Nick and Vicky, a British/Scottish couple, having come out of Bolivia after crossing the big salares and following the inverse route of mine to La Paz and up to Quito, having started it Nepal about two years ago. They heartily recommended their route from Uyuni to here, so that decided it for me: I'd head to Colchane and cross the border there. once in Colchane, I'd be in a unique position to cross both the big salares (Coipasa and Uyuni). Apparently there were supplies available in Pisiga, the Bolivian border town, and in Llica on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, so I was set.

They also recommended camping at the closed guardaparque office on the Salar de Surire just south of here, so I pushed it to get there before dark. The sun went down as I was passing the QuiBorax salt mining camp, and I covered the remaining 7km to the guardaparque in what felt like extreme cold. The neighbouring salar is, of course, completely white, and doesn't absorb the sun's heat during the day. The sandy land does absorb heat, but after sundown, this hot air rises and the cold air hanging over the salar is sucked onto the land and onto me. Pretty annoying. The guardaparque was closed and unmanned as expected. They operate a refugio consisting of some small basic rooms in a mobile trailer. The door to this trailer was locked of course, but I decided to check the windows, and found one of them unlocked. So I broke in and had a free room for the night. It saved me from having to pack up the tent in the morning, but it didn't save me from the overnight cold, which came right in through the thin walls. I cooked inside the room, and the steam froze against the window.

Salar de Surire to Chinchillani 48 km

Wow! Cold. My window was facing west so I'd have to get outside to warm up in the rising sun. I still made oatmeal inside the room though. Outside in the small parking area, I packed up the bike slowly, waiting for the temperatures to rise, and watched the vizcachas hopping around. I guess these ones are a bit used to humans and associate us with food, but they're still pretty shy. Got some good pictures.

From here I headed along the main road following the south side of the salar to the east. There was a major junction here, with the main road heading directly south and a minor one continuing east to Polloquere, a reputedly nice hot spring pool. I took the hot spring route, and found the place to be really beautiful, almost enough to want to stop here and stay the night, although it was only 11am when I arrived. But it was Friday and I figured I would be joined by a bunch of drunk QuiBorax workers or something. I got some incredible pictures of a lone flamingo that was spooked by my arrival and flew around in two wide circles before deciding I wasn't threatening, and returning to his starting point. I thought of trying out the pool at least, but imagining myself stepping out into the cold wind was too much to bear.

The road from here curved around a couple of mountain peaks and into Bolivian territory before heading back to Chile and rejoining the main road. The climb up the hillside was pretty strenuous and I needed to push the bike often through the sandy track. At the Bolivian frontier was another fenced-off minefield that I had to detour around, and the descent down an even deeper sandy track was almost as hard as the climb. Down at the main road again, it was pretty flat and open country with more frequent little ghost villages and a bit more traffic in the form of tour jeeps. Hidden campsites were scarce, but I knew about another hot spring up ahead, not a pool this time but a warm water river. I had to follow an eastbound side road to Chinchillani (whatever that is) for a few km to find the creek. The water was, hmm, not really very warm, surely not enough to entice me in after sundown. There was an abandoned sheep farm or something on the south shore with rock walls and some sort of water-filled channel that the animals would be forced to march through for a quick bath. Hey, is that was a "sheep dip" is? I've always wondered. Anyway, the rock walls were porous enough to let the freezing wind through, and it was another cold night in the tent.

Chinchillani to Pisiga (Bolivia) 47 km

A couple of big trucks passing by around 6am woke me up. What are big trucks doing here? I still don't know, but they were heading east, towards the border (with no border posts that I know of), loaded with big blue tarps covering the loads, and returning to the main road empty. I counted about 40 of them until about 9:30am when I was back on the road. I was overtaken during the day by empty trucks several times too. Nick and Vicky, the northbound cyclists, had told me they had only seen six cars between the Chile border and the place where we met. I saw several private vehicles too, but that's weekend tourist traffic I guess.

Anyway, the road was getting pretty sandy and slowing me down. The scenery and wildlife were pretty interesting though. Soon Volcán Isluga appeared, and then the village of Isluga which actually had some people living in it. It was definitely just indigenous people though, dressed similarly to those in Bolivia. I didn't stop to check out of there were any services for passerby. Soon after was the most developed hot spring pool of the few along this route. I sat for a while, thinking about getting in, but the cold wind was still there, and when other vehicles started showing up around lunchtime I bailed out. So, zero-for-three on the hot springs.

The road continued in rather poor shape towards another small and populated village, and another 10km beyond to the main Colchane-Iquique paved highway. Well, it was pretty rotten pavement but a nice change anyway. I headed to Colchane, glancing around in case any modern food stores were around, but no, this was just a very small dusty outpost village. I got my Chile exit stamp and headed for Bolivia. In Pisiga, the change was instantly apparent, with villagers walking all on foot and decrepit bicycles, no more private cars around. I pulled in at Residencial San Luis for a B30 (US$4) room. I braved the wind and walked around town. There was a pretty good market area where I picked up everything I was currently lacking.

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